Theater review: ‘Sense and Sensibility’ at HART

LOVE WINS: Haywood Arts Regional Theatre’s production of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is no stuffy period piece. Theater-in-the-round staging, contemporary music and long-lived themes of love and integrity keep it exciting. Photo courtesy of HART

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has received a humorous adaptation in the hands of playwright Kate Hamill and director Henry Williamson at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre. This is no stuffy period piece. Instead, a theater-in-the round staging creates room for intimacy as the actors, while in character, speak with audience members as the show begins. There are also two rousing musical numbers set to pop music that bookend the performance. The production appears through Sunday, May 13.

When Mr. Dashwood dies, his wife (played by Christine Caldemeyer) must help the family navigate a potential financial disaster at a time in 18th century England when women must marry strategically in order to have security. Mrs. Dashwood tries to protect her three daughters, but anxiety disrupts their lives. Love is elusive and, as other marriages in their orbit reveal, often has little to do with nuptials. They are surrounded by both well-meaning and mean-spirited extended family members engaged in match-making.

Audiences will recognize the influence of the 1995 film version of the novel, with its emphasis on family and loyalty, especially among women. The conniving sister-in-law Fanny represents the worst of womanhood in an age when competition for property, money and class status turns women on each other. Fanny and her ilk stand in sharp contrast to the Dashwood women.

Girding the production is the theme of love’s tenuous nature in a society that values love least. That is what makes the love among sisters the bedrock upon which they can build their lives. The gossips and manipulators test their bond.

Elinor (Hanni Muerdter) and Marianne (Sophie Stanley) are riveting as sisters of different temperaments and maturity. Muerdter’s taut face highlights the restraint she feels compelled to show given the social and class mores imposed upon women. She is fierce and yet awkward in her feelings toward Edward Ferrars (Isaac Klein). Her younger sister, Marianne, is just as fierce in her love of John Willoughby (Gary Freedman). However, Marianne succumbs to emotional outburst and indulges her desire for expression, both creative and amorous.

One of the most admirable aspects of this staging of Sense and Sensibility is that, except for Muerdter and Stanley, the other actors play additional roles. The actors also execute quick costume and stage changes throughout the performance. It is a testimony to their skills and the precision of stage management that the responsibilities energize their performances. A remarkable moment in the play, and a key turning point in the plot, is the fight that breaks out between Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele. Anna Denson plays both roles. This one-woman/two-characters scuffle is as hilarious as it is well-choreographed. Like a Greek chorus, the other characters stood by and gasped at the violent outburst while the audience howled with laughter.

HART’s production is a romantic comedy that celebrates love’s triumph. Deftly embedded in the play are the persistent sexist and ageist attitudes that Austen highlighted in her 1811 novel. Are we all pure in the pursuit of love? Marianne and Elinor change as a result of their suffering while in pursuit of love. Flaws emerge, as do errors in judgment. Who can resist the lure of wealth or show courage when faced with the threat of a bad reputation? These themes have longevity and still resonate in the era of the #MeToo movement.

WHAT: Sense and Sensibility
WHERE: Haywood Arts Regional Theatre, 250 Pigeon St., Waynesville, harttheatre.org
WHEN: May 4, 5, 10, 11 and 12, at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays, May 6 and 13, at 2 p.m.  $17.12-$25.68

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About Patricia Furnish
Patricia Furnish is a North Carolina native who loves history, Spanish, and the visual arts. She is also a documentary filmmaker. Follow me @drpatriqua

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